Hanging Out With Sophia the Sloth and Her Reptilian Pal

ZooKeeper’s sloth is torpidly glad to see you

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Hanging Out With Sophia the Sloth and Her Reptilian Pal

That creature in the large cage? The one you can see through the front window of the exotic pet store near the southeast corner of Burnet and Research? That's a sloth, that creature – a slow-moving, tropical American mammal that uses long limbs and hooked claws to hang upside down from the branches of trees. And her name is Sophia.

But Sophia isn't just a sloth, please note: She's a rescue sloth.

Another thing that you should know about this lanky length of mammalian fur and lethargy is that she has a pet of her own. That’s right: Sophia the sloth has a pet iguana.

"She was a rescue that we got from a student at UT," says David Moellendorf, longtime manager at Austin's ZooKeeper Exotics. "The student, for whatever reason, thought she was getting a pocket pet – a small animal which would fit in a pocket. Which, obviously, Sophia is not. And when we got her, she was already full-grown and was being kept in a birdcage that was not very large. And since we got her, she's much healthier – and of course, we built this big cage for her to live in."

Sophia's been at ZooKeeper for a while now, providing the bustling store with a sort of built-in mascot. "We've had her around 20 years," says Moellendorf, "but I'm not sure I can remember exactly. And people do come in just to see her. Even after we close, and sometimes before we open, people will stop by to look through the window at her."

Another thing that you should know about Sophia is that she, this lanky length of mammalian fur and lethargy, has a pet of her own: Sophia the sloth has a pet iguana. The current iguana, which has no name (unless Sophia's given it one that only she knows), lives with Sophia, sharing space in the roomy cage, generally keeping her company. And ... cuddling?

Well, maybe not actually cuddling.

"I don't know how true this is elsewhere," says Moellendorf, "but iguanas generally snort all the extra salt and minerals out of their nose – and it crystallizes on their nose. And the iguana will go up to the sloth and the sloth will hook the iguana close and lick its nose. So it's like Sophia has a giant salt lick in there with her. Whether that happens in the wild, I can't say – but it happens here."

(Brief pause while we try to decide if the idea of a sloth licking the crystallized salt off an iguana's nose is cute or gross.)

While keeping in mind that the staff at the always-busy ZooKeeper also accommodates the needs of many large snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and so on – that they make sure a multispecies multitude of tarantulas and scorpions and millipedes and other such varmints are as comfortable as they are creepy – we ask Moellendorf what it's like caring for a sloth.

"Oh, she's easy," says the affable manager, "but she's a diva. She'll throw a temper tantrum if food's not on time."

And, ah, what exactly does that look like in a sloth? Is it a sort of slow-motion tantrum?

Moellendorf chuckles. "It's faster than you think," he says. "And she'll come down from her tree and pick up the iguana's food bowl, and she'll carry it around at the front of the glass for us to look at. Or she'll grab the food that we give her, and she'll sniff it, and if it's not to her liking, she'll throw it in the pond."

So, Sophia's got her own pond and catered food and a pet iguana? No wonder she's such a contented creature these days. And always there in ZooKeeper's front window, citizen – for you to have a sloth-affirming look at in the midst of your, we're assuming, somewhat busier life.

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pets, Pet Issue 2020, sloth, Burnet and Research, David Moellendorf, ZooKeeper Exotics, Sophia

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